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Stephanie Alexander braves the chilly winds to tend her herbs and admire the camellias’ generous blooms.
Armelle Habib

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Stephanie Alexander braves the chilly winds to tend her herbs and admire the camellias’ generous blooms.

The daphne bushes are at budburst. Since I replaced the dense, dark tecoma hedge behind them, the plants have flourished. Their new background is six olive trees that are just a silvery suggestion of what they’ll become, but in the meantime the sunshine filters through the trellising and the daphne has romped ahead. Soon I’ll be able to pick bunches of its exquisitely scented flowers, the only pruning it needs.

There’s not a lot flowering elsewhere, although I mustn’t forget the charm of the pale-blue parma violets that make such a pretty ground cover, and the Fuji-no-mine camellias. My camellias are in the side garden and I sometimes almost forget they’re there, until I go to collect the mulch bins and am struck by the richness and generosity of their blooms. Most other colour has left the trees, mine and the others in the street. It’s all falling leaves, bare boughs and chilly winds. I feel disloyal because I’ve forgotten to mention the beautiful hellebores, often called winter roses. They shyly hide their pretty faces until one tips the flower to get a better look. They’re so beautiful and the many hybrid cultivars come in purple, magenta and blue-black as well as the better-known green, cream and rose-pink.

I have to admit failure with the persimmon tree. It died. I’ll order another and promise to take better care of it should we have another hot summer.

Everything slows down in winter.

Even my amazing capsicum and chilli bushes have decided to shut down. I picked the last of the chillies, made a string of them and hung it under the eaves. I hope they dry rather than rot. If I had one of those dehydrators I suppose I could hurry up the process. I’ve also made a bottle of chilli oil following the recipe in The Cook’s Companion, and will try it tonight drizzled over a baked King George whiting.

I still have carrots, broccoli, spinach, leeks, some salad greens, and the faithful hardy herbs of rosemary and thyme. I’m planning to plant another lot of sprouting broccoli now that the white cabbage moth seems to have passed. Hopefully there will be fewer caterpillars to watch out for.

The broad beans climb higher each day and the handsome globe artichokes are thrusting out their huge leaves. This year my sage has been magnificent. I grew it in one of the boxes rather than in the ground, and it seems to have preferred this spot. I’ve been able to crisp whole bunches rather than single leaves – they’re so delicious on fish or chicken. The snow peas are creeping up the trellis in the front garden, but it must be said that the Chelsea sweet peas are faster growers and have almost reached the top of the supports.

My gardener edged the front beds with strawberries on one side and baby turnips on the other. The strawberries need several months to grow, but the turnips are nearly ready for a harvest. They are so good when they’re small, and can be braised in a buttered pan with a little stock, or tumbled into the roasting pan with a chicken half an hour before it’s cooked. I don’t bother to peel them, but I do give them a good scrub.

It was quite hard work shelling my raspy Sicilian madamola beans, but they made a lovely soupe au pistou, a French soup similar to Italy’s minestrone. The French soup has green beans, zucchini, a dollop of pesto (known as pistou) and grated Gruyère. Minestrone has plenty of dark-green Tuscan kale and is usually finished with a drizzle of the best extra-virgin olive oil and grated parmesan (a parmesan rind may be simmered in the soup too). I enjoy both soups, but this time I just happened to have the last of the basil leaves to make the pistou.

I was recently involved in Perth’s annual Garden Week – what a joy it was. On display was Western Australia’s spectacular flora. The orange banksia flowers were a delightful and dramatic street planting. There were so many great shrubs and trees I wanted to take home with me: the desert lime, for instance, and the grass trees. Every year I promise myself a holiday during peak wildflower season. This pleasure is still to come.

While in Perth, I hosted demonstrations by students from three schools that run the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program: Singleton Primary School, Comet Bay Primary School and East Fremantle Primary School. The students grilled slices of sourdough. They rubbed them with garlic, then spread each slice with goat’s cheese. They topped half with sautéed silverbeet, mushroom and amaretti crumbs, and the remainder with sautéed zucchini, zucchini flowers and preserved lemon.

Each student cooked with confidence and competence, unfazed by the elaborate state-of-the-art barbecue range provided for them. They sliced their creations and the samples disappeared in a trice.

That’s it from me for another month. Stay warm.

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